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Science Fiction

Daxus loved his job as a Zookeeper. It hadn’t always been that way, when he was younger he hated seeing the listless, defeated eyes of all the animals, especially with each newest batch the Zoo acquired. Back then the Zoo–for there had always only been one–had almost exclusively been for entertainment, and many species had died from the poor health and abuse. In these instances, those species were assumed to be lost forever.

Over time, as Daxus was maturing and acquiring all the necessary skills to become a Zookeeper, the motivations around the Zoo slowly shifted. It started leaning away from spectacle and towards conservation. It became a center of research and learning, of understanding one’s place in the universe. He, himself, began to see it as a responsibility to these creatures, to preserve the memories of the faded worlds they each represented. Others were not so open-minded, they saw these animals, always the last of their kinds, as reminders of past choices that should be forgotten, however necessary they were at the moment; souvenirs of guilt that did not need to be carried.

Though far from a fringe opinion, Daxus was grateful that this minority thinking had been overruled.

The bright yellow sun was just coming over the horizon as he left the start-of-cycle meeting, and he pulled an outer layer over his uniform to defend against the early chill. The meeting had been straightforward for the most part–how was the cultivation of food supplies for each Biome faring, was the number of species lost continuing to dwindle, what new learnings were coming from the Medics–but recently there was a new, unprecedented topic. Some of the creatures in the earlier Biomes were now thriving to the degree that they were overbreeding and outgrowing their allotted enclosures. Though the Zoo had a generous usable space endowment granted by the Authority, they were hesitant to overstep it, not knowing how popular they actually were with all those currently in power. In the early days, after they had collectively moved away from the animals-as-entertainment mentality, there was still much to learn about the needs and life spans of each species. As creatures reached the end of their lives, whether naturally or not, their kind was lost if they had not reproduced in time. In Daxus’s opinion, it had been a great victory the first time some of their residents produced viable offspring, and he thought it an excellent sign that they were now facing overpopulation with some of them.

In any case, the nine-member team he was a part of was a long way off from having to worry about this. Their assigned Biome was the newest, and also happened to be the largest. The team left the meeting together and sped to their Biome. On the way, they passed some of the older Biomes, each a huge dome forcefield with a precisely controlled environment inside. The forcefields were transparent, so one could see even from afar how much the inside of each one differed. Freezing temperatures of constantly howling winds, scorching heats that melted most solids and were almost too bright to look at, and some Biomes with all lifeforms entirely submerged in liquid. They passed other teams donning the protective suits designed for each environment. They were all different based on the demands of their respective Biomes, but they all covered the wearer’s body entirely and involved some kind of respirating apparatus.

There was a short time when patrons of the Zoo also had to don these protective suits in order to enter the domes, but it quickly proved too cumbersome to fabricate them for the endless sizes and shapes the wearers’ bodies came in. Now, all the creature enclosures ran along the inside perimeter of their forcefields, so patrons could simply move and gather around the domes to see everything. The centers of the domes, which the patrons could not easily view, were reserved for cultivating the different varieties of food, which were of course also specific to each Biome.

Daxus stepped into his own protective suit and he and his team members checked the seals on each other’s gear. He had known these eight individuals all his life, because workposts were assigned at birth and additional members of the population were only brought forth if new positions in society needed to be filled, which didn’t happen very often now. Resources were carefully monitored, and taxing them with non-crucial inhabitants would be a burden on all of them.

Equipment verified, the nine of them stepped into the environment lock that kept their own exterior atmosphere sealed off from the interior one of the Biome. The gasses hissed around them, and they were cleared to enter the dome.

They headed to the center to collect their respective equipment and supplies. Two of the members stayed there, they were the Cultivationists responsible for creating and maintaining food supplies. The other seven, including Daxus, approached the first enclosure. This one contained two large / four-limbed / furred / flora-consuming / surface-dwellers with an astonishing number of internal skeleton sections between their heads and the rest of their spotted bodies.

The Suspensionist entered first, they were responsible for arresting all of the creatures’ movement and levitating them just off the ground. They were also able to rotate the creatures in space this way, which allowed the Medic to take all necessary measurements and readings to analyze overall health. The Hygienist searched for corrosion and invasion in the space and removed excrement, and the Environmentalist designed and arranged the elements of the habitat, which in the case of this Biome included a lot of flora. The Nutritionist administered the solid food and the Hydrationist managed creature liquid intake; the creatures of this Biome generally required both. Once the six of them had finished their work and exited the enclosure, the creatures were granted free movement again and the Behavioralist observed their feeding and socializing patterns.

Daxus was a Hydrationist. His role in this dome was quite simple since most of the creatures in it consumed the same type of liquid their bodies were based in: a combination of hydrogen and oxygen within a limited temperature range. There were a few exceptions, like the small / four-limbed / furred / winged / liquid-consuming / surface-dwellers that subsisted on the lifeblood of other animals. There were three of these creatures in the enclosure, instead of the customary pair of opposites that they established was required for reproduction in this Biome. This oversight was likely deemed inconsequential since these creatures were quite small. The Behavioralist explained to the rest of them that these three animals were very strict about always feeding in the exact same order, which was interesting for such a small group. Hierarchical structure was not uncommon, but they generally didn’t get to observe it until a species’ numbers increased. The Behavioralist noted that, in this Biome, the creatures carrying reproductive fertilizing material were larger and more physically impressive, but that they deferred to the ones carrying the receiving ovum, constantly vying for the latter’s attention.

The team continued through the enclosures of the other large / four-limbed / surface-dwelling creatures. Some of them could be placed in habitats together, the docile flora-consuming ones especially, and often also with the winged ones that did not have weaponized lower limbs and faces. One of these weaponized ones had been overlooked by the Suspensionist during an early routine round, and the creature had very impressively torn into one of the limbs of Daxus’s protective suit. He had patched it immediately with the emergency repair device they all carried, but it still stung at the time. Later, when the Medic was examining the angry red-brown bubbles that had sprung up on the exposed surface of his skin, he learned that he had oxidized locally. The oxygen content of this Biome’s atmosphere was remarkably high, mainly due to the byproducts of the flora life. It was a wonder everything wasn’t constantly turning brown and crumbling.

Daxus did not need to perform any of his typical duties in the all-liquid enclosures, so he mainly entered them to provide support. The diversity in each of these was generally far greater, the liquid-submerged creatures co-existed much more readily than the surface-dwelling ones.

It was always a harrowing task, determining compatibility of lifeforms, when they first received all the animals. They arrived in transparent capsules, one species suspended in each, with samples of their environments enclosed with them. This usually included their sealed atmosphere, samples of liquid and flora that surrounded them at the time of Harvesting, and the best assumption of food source. It was the Acquisitions sector that collected these, and they had come a long way to convincing them to obtain even this much material. The Zoology sector had petitioned several times to send one of their members along on these Harvests, but to no avail. Acquisitions insisted that Zoology would hinder the mission, and time was always of the essence during these excursions. 

So Zoology received the capsules and tried not to complain. The enclosed atmospheres were analyzed first and, while the new Biome was being created off of the gathered readings, species compatibility was tested. Environment samples were often an easy indicator of which creatures inhabited the same areas, and from there they released two species at a time into a controlled chamber designed to mirror the surroundings they were accustomed to. If the species were indifferent to or cooperative with one another, they were deemed co-habitable. If any violent aggression was displayed, the creatures’ movement was immediately suspended and further testing was conducted. This was particularly demanding in the case of this newest Biome, Terra, which had an unprecedented 500 species and sub-species.

The creatures of Terra broadly fell into categories of fauna-consuming predator, flora-consuming prey, and destructive parasites–though there were exceptions in every category.

For example, the enclosures they were in now contained a collection of small-to-medium / four-limbed / furred / flora-and-fauna-consuming / surface-dwellers that exhibited both predator and prey characteristics. Some of them even had what Daxus would have considered a fifth limb behind the lower two, though longer than the other ones and almost as flexible as his own limbs. The creatures in these enclosures swung from the larger flora lifeforms and had a variety of vocalizations, and Daxus was hoping they would reproduce successfully because the Behavioralist suspected they would exhibit very complex social structures in large groups.

Near this section was the team’s final stop for the cycle. This enclosure always ended up being their last one, even though that was never officially decided. Perhaps it was because they were the most puzzling of this Biome’s creatures or, as Daxus felt, by far the most taxing.

These were medium / flora-and-fauna-consuming / surface-dwellers that possessed four limbs but only ambulated with the lower two. Zoology sector had received a number of capsules that contained presumably different sub-species of this creature based on outer appearance. Some were furred, others bizarrely coated in deceased flora, and still others encased in hard shells of metallic material. They quickly realized that these outer layers were not actually part of the creatures’ bodies, and they were in fact very delicately skinned at the base. During the co-habitation tests, Zoology had found that these animals were not conclusively compatible with any other surface-dwellers, and even amongst themselves they exhibited violent aggression. At the moment they had about a dozen of these which they kept in small, individual enclosures until the Behavioralists gained a better understanding of them.

Daxus had the first breakthrough with these creatures, because hydration turned out to be the principle priority for them. As a result of this first development, they seemed to trust him the most and he, in turn, felt a greater responsibility for them that he didn’t particularly want. At first, these animals did not consume any solid foods at all, regardless of what they were presented with, and it was a credit to the Behavioralist who realized that they were refusing to feed despite physically requiring it! As such, the Nutritionalist continued to provide them with a variety of foods, and eventually they succumbed. Some ate flora and fauna and others only flora, but all displayed some degree of predatory behavior, which was odd considering that no part of their soft bodies was weaponized and they were not particularly fast or large and had no means of flight. For the moment they were best categorized as parasites, in part due to the puzzling note Acquisitions had sent along with their capsules: Dominant animal species of planet.

Some of their questions were answered following analysis of the metallic environment objects that accompanied these creatures in their capsules. It was revealed that they had some forms of rudimentary technology–slightly more advanced than a basic calculating machine. The large, hard metallic casing one of them came in proved to be a rude device for rapid ground travel, impressive for such a basic species.

At times, Daxus detected repeating patterns in their vocalizations and really felt that they were trying to communicate with him, which he found fascinating. He never expressed this to any of the others, but he thought that these creatures might even be aware that the Acquisitions sector had Harvested their planet for its resources and collected them and their fellow lifeforms for the Zoo, just as they had done to scores of planets before. But that was preposterous, how could they know that?

The second, soft white sun was rising as the team exited the environment lock and removed their stiff suits, some stretching their three flexible limbs in relief, others up to nine–Daxus himself had seven limbs. He could hear their overlapping thoughts in his head. As usual, they were debating the viability and persistence of this last species. He added his own thoughts to the discussion: he understood why some among them thought they should eliminate the creatures altogether, they were indeed a taxing stress on all lifeforms around them, including and most especially themselves since they appeared to spend most of the time in their individual enclosures in visible distress. But Daxus thought they could be of some value to their research, that planet had possessed more technology, however basic, than most of the other ones they had harvested. The Behavioralist pulsed in agreement, and the debate lived to see another cycle.

One thing that could not be refuted was the popularity of this newest Biome. An orderly crowd had formed at the entrance to it, patrons hovering about and pulsing anticipation and curiosity. After an affirmation from Daxus’s team Suspensionist, the Curators signaled the Biome open for visitation. The patrons drifted in and pressed against the dome perimeter. The most-viewed enclosure was the one that held the small / eight-limbed / fauna-consuming / liquid-submerged creatures that so closely resembled themselves. These had caused quite a stir upon arrival, and Daxus still wasn’t as sure as the Medics were that they weren’t related to one another. It appeared that Acquisitions had harbored the same curiosity, because they sent several specimens back.

Unfortunately, the enclosures holding the dozen technology-wielding parasite creatures were currently closed off to patrons, being observed by large groups was causing them too much stress. 

Yes, Daxus was pleased with his workpost as a Zookeeper. Even if there were those who thought Zoology summarily frivolous, even if this Terra Biome failed and all its species were lost–which had happened twice before–he still thought Zoology’s endeavors important. It was humbling to preserve the lifeforms that had sacrificed their planets for the survival of his, and he was proud to be a part of it.

August 25, 2022 19:27

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